First, it was the ruling of Florida’s Supreme Court and now it’s the ruling of the 11th US Circuit Court of Appeals. Under Florida law, felons who haven’t paid financial restitution haven’t fully paid their debt to society and thus aren’t eligible to vote. This multi-year saga came to a close on Friday as the Federal Court system ruled just as Florida’s had previously. Despite the allegations of financial restitution being a “poll tax”, the 11th US Circuit Court ruled that financial restitution wasn’t a violation of the due process clause in the Constitution. Citing the Chief Justice, 'States are constitutionally entitled to set legitimate voter qualifications through laws of general application and to require voters to comply with those laws through their own efforts. So long as a state provides adequate procedures to challenge individual determinations of ineligibility, as Florida does, due process requires nothing more.'
From the onset of the process, which began after the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition obtained the required number of signatures for consideration by the Florida Supreme Court, financial restitution as part of the restoration of voting rights wasn’t in question. Why? Because of the argument advanced before the Florida Supreme Court. Attorney John Mills, representing the Florida Rights Restoration Coalition had this specific exchange when having the ballot language considered to appear on Florida’s ballot.
Florida Supreme Court question: So, the restoration of voting rights would also include the full payment of any fines?
John Mill's response on behalf of the Coalition: Yes, sir
And so, with that consideration in mind, the Florida Supreme Court approved this ballot language:
No. 4 Constitutional Amendment Article VI, Section 4. Voting Restoration Amendment This amendment restores the voting rights of Floridians with felony convictions after they complete all terms of their sentence including parole or probation. The amendment would not apply to those convicted of murder or sexual offenses, who would continue to be permanently barred from voting unless the Governor and Cabinet vote to restore their voting rights on a case by case basis.
Florida’s voters passed that amendment with more than 64% of the vote. Despite answering that financial restitution was the intent of the proposal and the Amendment clearly stating “all terms” of their sentence, it was immediately clear that the Coalition was disingenuous. Former felons were being registered to vote without consideration of financial obligations. As a result, Florida’s legislators passed legislation mandating financial restitution as part of the restoration process.
I found it to be offensive in addition to disingenuous. As I’ve asked previously, where are the advocates of victims' rights in Florida? It’s funny how they disappear when they perceive registering as many former felons as possible may be politically advantageous to their ideological objectives. But that’s not the crux of this story. We now know, based on a study by the University of Florida, how many former felons have actually paid back their debt to society as determined by the courts. 18%. If you’re a cynic wondering if justice still prevails, this was a faith restoring decision for you. It is not asking too much of felons to actually repay their victims prior to have their voting rights restored. Further, with the Amendment only passing by 4% in the first place, I have little doubt it would have failed had it been made clear that the intent wasn’t to make victims whole first.
The facts were always clear in this case. The Florida Restoration Coalition along with their allies in news media who failed to accurately report on this story right along owe all of us an apology and in the case of the felons, money. I won’t hold my breath.
Photo by: Jeff Swensen/Getty Images